From Tudor England to the White House, read the unmissable fiction that’s inspired by history.
Conjure up some of your favourite books and we can guarantee some of them will have their roots in real people and places.
From giving much-needed voices to those who endured the brutality of slavery to examining women’s reactions to some of history’s biggest moments (and even its small ones), historical fiction has become both feminist and vital to rethinking how things really went down.
It’s no surprise then that some of contemporary fiction’s most talented voices – Yaa Gyasi, Pat Barker, Hilary Mantel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Elif Shafak and Sarah Waters to name just a few – are inspired by reality but also want to search out the truth of what really happened. Meet some of the best books of historical fiction ever written…
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World by Elif Shafak
The unforgettable life of Tequila Leila is inspired by so many real-life moments in the history of Istanbul: the dangerous world of sex workers (until 1990, rapists could have their sentences reduced by a third if it was proved the victim was a sex worker); the Cemetery of the Companionless where unclaimed bodies from the city are buried and the massacre on International Workers Day in 1977.
While all of this may sound bleak, what resonates from this incredible book is love, friendships and the importance of remembering that every single life matters. Once read, it’s so difficult to forget.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Like the brilliant Silence Of The Girls by Pat Barker (see her Regeneration trilogy below), Haynes has been inspired by the events of the Trojan War (in itself a topic of speculation – for centuries it was dismissed as legend but ruins of what is thought to be Troy were found at the end of the 19th century) and has decided to retell it from the perspective of the women involved. After all, these were the women who saw their husbands and children slain by the Greeks, who then used them as slaves. What is particularly moving is the voices of the goddesses and muses watching on as human frailty causes the world’s most enduring tragedy.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Cape Coast Castle is one of about 40 “slave castles” that was built on the Gold Coast of West Africa by European traders. In this castle, Africans were imprisoned in vile conditions before being sold (if they were still breathing) to countries across the world including the US, Britain and the Netherlands.
It was a trip to this castle which inspired Gyasi to create her epic interweaving story of two sisters and their offspring in her 2016 debut, and it’s a book that really damningly brings home the damage, torture and viciousness that slavery caused to families across Africa; damage that is still reverberating now. An absolutely unmissable read.
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
A reimagining of Laura Bush’s life (marriage to George W being its main standout moment) may sound an unpromising topic for a book but Sittenfeld’s writing is utterly mesmerising. Tracing her heroine Alice Blackwell’s life from her teenage years to life in the White House, Sittenfeld explores those gaps between how people feel and think to what life expects of them, to how we all carry with us guilt and regret but that moving on with what we have now is the only way to grow and flourish. It’s a fascinating portrait of the personal vs political and a great reminder in these present times that not everything is black and white.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
How do you take the most conniving, cruel man in the Tudor period (that isn’t Henry VIII) and create a sympathetic portrait of a man torn between loyalty and honesty? Well, Hilary Mantel has a way about her writing that other novelists can only dream of, and she has taken Thomas Cromwell and delicately told his story; that of a self-made man and widower who found himself at the centre of 1500s Europe desperately dealing with intrigue, danger and a king blinded to his own frailties alongside Anne Boleyn. The final book in the trilogy, The Mirror & The Light, is due out on 5 March 2020 and it’s not overstating it to describe it as one of the most-anticipated books of the decade.
Half A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Telling the story of the Biafran Civil War (the lead-up to it and its aftermath) in the 60s through the lives and viewpoints of her characters, Adichie captures how war brings chaos and tragedy in a whole host of ways: through the inescapable loss of life, unexpected personal betrayals, destroyed ideals and enduring grief that can never be resolved. However, the voices of Ugwu, Odenigbo, Olanna and Kainene are all drawn with such love, care and humour, it’s impossible not to return to this powerful book again and again.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Uniting the plot-shifting sensation novels of Victorian England with queer identities is utterly inspired as Sarah Waters pirouettes through this twisting tale of hidden identities, stolen fortunes and star-crossed lovers. Her two main characters – Sue and Maud – are quite frankly wonderful, and their desperate attempts to find their own freedom resonate as they push and pull against their tides of fortune. At the centre of the novel is an erotic dictionary based on real bibliographies published by book collector and writer Henry Spencer Ashbee, under the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi, proving that sometimes fact is often stranger than fiction.
The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker
There have been a huge number of books exploring the horror of World War I but it’s Pat Barker’s The Regeneration Trilogy that truly brings home the devastating effect of those who survived only to be haunted by what they experienced and what it means to them to have tried to pursue what they feel is a sense of honour in fighting. The first in the trilogy, Regeneration, is set in the real-life Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh and explores the stories of poets and patients Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Here, the men grapple with shell-shock as their psychiatrist tries to help them find a way out of their on-going nightmares. Moving and enduring, Barker’s trilogy is a must-read.
Z: A Novel Of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
If you can’t get enough of doomed socialites then Therese Anne Fowler (along with Paula McLain and Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott) is a must-read (her other historical fiction A Well Behaved Woman is based on the fascinating life of Alva Vanderbilt). Fowler’s take on Zelda Fitzgerald is both empowering and desperately sad as she strips away the rumour and damnation to reveal a portrait of a vulnerable young woman with so much to give who’s destroyed by her husband and an era which promised women freedom – but only on men’s terms.
Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
Mention Old Baggage to anyone you know who’s read it and you’ll be clasped to their chest and asked breathlessly, “Isn’t it just great?” It’s 1928 and Matilda Simpkin’s Suffragette hell-raising days are behind her but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have some ideas brewing… Faced with a friend backing fascism, she decides to set up the Amazons – an outdoors group for teenage girls in order to equip them with the skills they need to navigate the world; however just as things are going swimmingly, Mattie’s past isn’t going down without a fight. If you want something filled with humour and heart, this is THE book you’re looking for.
Images: courtesy of publishers